SALT LAKE CITY — Give a kid an electronic toy and you can probably expect a week or two of interest before it finds a place at the back of a closet.
But give a kid a circuit board with an array of cool sensors, a programmable microcontroller and an interface that can both teach and help edit computer code to manipulate the electronics, and something truly remarkable may just happen.
"The big eye-opener for me is how kids just gravitate to these kits," said Kevin Reeve, co-founder of Logan's Cache Makers, a STEM learning club for middle and high school students. "Reading about science and technology and computer science isn't going to get our kids where they need to be in our tech economy. … Implementing fun and engaging hands-on learning is the key."
And that is exactly the user outcome Sunny Washington, co-founder and CEO of Because Learning, a Salt Lake City-based education technology company, was aiming for when she developed her STEM learning program.
The approach combines a kit of high-tech electronic components, a novel, open-source programmable microcontroller called an Arduino and a set of teacher-friendly lesson plans that were created to meet national STEM learning standards. Washington said classroom research and talking with teachers identified the priorities for how to make the program both engaging and effective.
"How we approached the engineering was guided by two equally important concepts," Washington said. "Will a student care and will a teacher, regardless of their STEM-related background, be able to jump right into a lesson."
What works, and what doesn't, for students and teachers was also informed by Washington's experience in her first business venture, one that paired students and teachers with access to sensors on tiny satellites in low Earth orbit. That company, Ardusat, created opportunities for students to create their own experiments, utilizing sensors on cube satellites launched by San Francisco-based Spire Global, and is still part of the offerings under the Because Learning brand.
Washington said the hands-on concept not only drew students into an active learning environment, but showed that, when given an engaging starting point, inspirational outcomes often followed.
"We found that some of the most creative ideas were ones we didn't come up with," Washington said.
"We had a Boy Scout troop that wanted to measure the size of the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. They came up with the hypothesis that, using a satellite's temperature sensor, they could estimate the size of the patch by identifying temperature differences between plastic in the patch and the surrounding water."
Inspiring creativity, and harvesting the learning opportunities that come with self-motivated discovery, was what helped convince Jeff Baugus, science and math coordinator for the Santa Rosa County (Florida) School District, to outfit all 33 of his system's schools with Because Learning kits. The district, which has 28,000 students, also has new, enhanced state STEAM (Florida includes arts, along with their science, technology, engineering and math) education standards going into effect soon and the program, Baugus said, seemed particularly well suited to help his teachers reach those goals.
"We feel like the kits are helping us in laying the groundwork for that shift when it happens," Baugus said. "Our favorite part about the partnership is everything they do is very exploratory in nature and there are a lot of touch points to connect to math and science."
Baugus said the Because Learning program helps teach students concepts, like coding, manipulating sensors and learning about robotics and automation, that are relevant to today's technology and innovation realm. He also noted how quickly students are inspired by the kits and experiments.
"Some students are intimidated when they open the kit for the first time," Baugus said. "But 15 minutes later, the hesitation is gone and they're diving right in."
Because Learning's other co-founder and chief information officer Kevin Cocco said the direct connection between the technologies introduced through using the kit and lesson plans and what's happening in the here-and-now of the tech world is very intentional.
"We're all hearing a lot right now about how robotics and automation will be taking over jobs," Cocco said. "We're working to prepare students for this emergence that's being driven by sensors, automation, robotics, etc. Self-driving cars, the 'internet of things,' … all of these are part of the future that we're working to prepare students for through Because Learning."
Cocco said that his team has also worked hard to avoid the trap of "dumbing down" the components, and potentials, for the kit and associated experiments.
"We want kids to wire and code and look at the guts," Cocco said. "A lot of kits look cute, but you can't see what's going on. We’ve really engineered this to make it easy to get started but you can get as deep as you want to.
"You can jump right in with projects like the Zombie Detector, but then you can do something much more complicated, like an exoplanet detector."
Before Ardusat and Because Learning, Washington was employee No. 7 at Utah education technology giant Instructure. But after the company had grown to hundreds of employees, she was ready for a new challenge.
"I looked around and realized, 'This isn't a startup anymore,'" Washington said. "And I was ready to dig back into building something again."
That building exercise is well underway. While the Because Learning platform was an expansion just announced in September, the Ardusat Space Program was founded in 2014 and the expanded company is doing business with 250 schools in 30 countries.
Washington said new STEM standards, like the Next Generation Science Standards, have already been adopted by over two dozen states and Because Learning's K-12 curriculum offerings are aligned to help schools hit those new performance marks.
The company has already raised $1 million in seed funding and is looking to finance market expansion through a Series A effort that could get started later this year.
The company has worked to make access easy by giving the kits away and charging only for licensed access to the learning platform. Schools can purchase group licenses that don't assess a per-student fee, Washington said, and there is even an option for parents or guardians to engage Because Learning's program for a monthly fee.
For now, Washington said her company's No. 1 mission is to shift the balance in making STEM education an accessible and succesful endeavor for students and teachers everywhere.
"No one is questioning the critical importance of a solid understanding and comfort with STEM topics for every school student today," Washington said. "We believe we've created a system that opens doors to a hands-on learning process that gets these kids ready to face the challenges, find the solutions and be successful in the future that is waiting for all of them."
To learn more about the Because Learning program, visit www.becauselearning.com/.